Thursday, June 13, 2019

Same league, different name for Pioneers

By Zachary Baru

A new season for the Western Mass. Pioneers is here, and while the soccer will still be the same as the unofficial fourth-tier of American soccer, the Premier Development League is no more. 

While the PDL name has changed, the Pioneers' league is technically still the same, as the PDL has changed their name to USL League 2.  The United Soccer League went through a series of restructuring this season, which was initially announced back in 2017, but has just come into full fruition.

The first of many changes from the USL for the 2019 season was the organization dropping the "s" from their name, changing from the United Soccer Leagues to the United Soccer League.  Secondly, the USL changed their highest level league from the self-named United Soccer League to USL Championship.  The new league name did not change the level of play, as USL Championship is still  recognized as a second tier league by the U.S. Soccer Federation, just as the formerly-named USL was.

The next change for the USL organization was the addition of a new league for the 2019 season.  This league is called USL League One, recognized as a third tier league by U.S. Soccer.  That makes the Pioneers' new league, USL League Two, commonly recognized as a fourth tier league in North America, however U.S. Soccer does not officially recognize the league as fourth tier since U.S. Soccer does not include non-professional leagues in their hierarchy.

When it comes to USL League Two, however, make no mistake about it, this is an extremely competitive and well-run organization.  Besides the name change, USL League Two is comprised of 72 franchises across 4 divisions in North America, and is as strong as the league has ever been.  The league is arguably even stronger now after the USL's restructuring of their leagues, making way for the Pioneers' new league to represent a true progression of talent across of the leagues of the USL.

We are fortunate to have an extremely high level of soccer in our own backyard.  Lusitano Stadium, home of the Pioneers and now the New England Mutiny, is a special venue that has been nationally recognized for its intimacy and soccer-specific design.  No matter where you decide to sit or stand, you can be right on top of the action with perfect sight lines.  For Western Mass. soccer fans, having a strong league like USL League Two, a quality franchise like the Pioneers, and the unique venue of Lusitano Stadium so close to home is a true gift, and one no soccer fan should live without.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Friday, March 29, 2019

NCAA Tournament bringing national television exposure on ESPN2

By Zachary Baru

UMass Hockey has made it to the national stage, not just by gaining another appearance in the NCAA Hockey Tournament, but by gaining airtime today nationally on ESPN2.

Today's game against Harvard will be one of many games this season for UMass Hockey on television, but it will be by far their largest audience, even with a tough time slot.  One game earlier this season was broadcast on Fox College Sports, as was another on TSN 2 in Canada.  Regionally, many games have been aired live on NESN and NBC Sports Boston.

Today's ESPN2 appearance is a unique opportunity to give the entire country exposure to the UMass Hockey program, which is having a successful and historic season.  The 2018-19 season marked the first time in program history that UMass Hockey reached a #1 national ranking, and finished the season ranked #4 nationally in the USCHO.com poll.  The Minutemen will look to ride their momentum on a successful season to show a nationwide audience the level the program has reached, as most of the country has not had much exposure to the UMass Hockey team.

With the exception of ESPN+, a streaming subscription service, hockey in general is rare on ESPN.  The NCAA Hockey Tournament, however, has given ESPN exclusive rights in the U.S. to broadcast every game.  ESPN2 will be airing most of the tournament, including the championship game, with some games on ESPNU and two games on ESPN's free streaming service, ESPN3.

UMass will face Harvard today at 3 p.m. in the first round at the 9,852-seat SNHU Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire.  SNHU Arena is home to the Manchester Monarchs of the ECHL.

For UMass, this will be a rare chance to show the entire country how much their program has grown, going from an non-ranked team last season to a #1 ranking in the nation this year.  After a year in which the men's basketball team received little national television exposure, tonight will be an opportunity for the UMass brand to be seen in front of a massive nationwide audience.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Red Sox Weekend coming to Springfield

By Zachary Baru

Since 2015, Boston Red Sox Winter Weekend has been held at Foxwoods Resort and Casino, but come 2020 the event will be a whole lot closer - right here in Springfield.

MGM will become the new "official and exclusive resort casino of the Boston Red Sox", replacing the previous 5-year deal with Foxwoods.  Not only will Winter Weekend be coming to MGM Springfield, but the MGM logo will appear on the "Green Monster" in Fenway Park.

Winter Weekend was formerly held at the 4,000-seat Grand Theater at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut since 2015.  There has not been an announcement yet as to which venue Winter Weekend will be held at MGM Springfield, but the resort casino has many options.

MGM Springfield does have convention space at the resort, but a more viable option might be off the resort at the 2,600-seat Symphony Hall, which MGM Springfield now manages.  MGM Springfield also manages the MassMutual Center across Main Street, but between the 8,000-seat arena (for concert seating) and the Exhibition Hall, Symphony Hall might be the better option for the town hall-style event.

It has been a big year for MGM Springfield, after announcing last month that they will be presenting Aerosmith at the MassMutual Center for 4 shows in August 2019 during the band's Deuces Are Wild - East Coast Run.  MGM Resorts International has kept up their promise of more entertainment to the city, as a very successful 2019 continues for MGM Springfield.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Renovations underway at Mackenzie Stadium

By Zachary Baru

There shouldn't be many more disputes about the name of Mackenzie Stadium in Holyoke, especially now that an enormous sign and logo has been placed on top of a new large scoreboard in left field.

Mackenzie Stadium, often referred to as Mackenzie Field, is much more than a field.  Especially now, that the venue and it's 600-seat grandstand has improvements such as the new scoreboard and a brand new infield.

The City of Holyoke has made many improvements over the years, including the fence and a new field last year (see "Renovations for Mackenzie Stadium key for Blue Sox, City of Holyoke, Western Mass. Sports Biz, March 2017.)  Come next season, Holyoke High and Valley Blue Sox fans will be able to enjoy a refreshed, modern look to the stadium.  The new scoreboard is purple for the colors of the Holyoke High School Purple Knights, and not only contains a large sign for the stadium, but it also has additional space for advertisements.

Mackenzie Stadium opened in 1933 and was home to the Holyoke Millers, a member of the "AA" Eastern League from 1977 through 1982.  In 2004, baseball once again returned to the Paper City, when the New England Collegiate Baseball League brought the Holyoke Giants to town.  

The franchise moved to Lynn, Massachusetts in 2007, making way for what was then called the Holyoke Blue Sox to come to the city in 2008.  The Holyoke Blue Sox changed their name to the Valley Blue Sox in 2014.

With a new infield and new large scoreboard in left field, Mackenzie Stadium continues to provide one of the best stadium experiences for baseball in Western Massachusetts.  It may not have the capacity of the newest minor league stadiums, but with its history, and now its improvements, Mackenzie Stadium is a special place to be able to watch baseball 85 years after it first opened. 

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.  Zach also writes for SportsBusinessBoston.com.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

As MGM Springfield’s opening nears, Thunderbirds look to see attendance hike

By Zachary Baru

With the opening of MGM Springfield less than two months away, many Springfield businesses are eagerly awaiting the positive effects from the $950 million resort casino.  The Springfield Thunderbirds are one of these such businesses, and are in prime position to have yet another successful season from the expected attendance increase.

As the Thurnderds’ home sits across the street from the casino’s main entrance, any home game will most likely see a fair amount of casino guests, either making their way to or from the casino.

MGM Springfield has been a good supporter of the Thunderbirds ever since the announcement of their new Springfield resort, and has always said the casino will help boost local entertainment at the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall and City Stage.

This appears to be nothing short of accurate, as the Thunderbirds will be a very good addition to a casino that already seems to offer many entertainment options.  One example of this will be the Thunderbirds hosting the 2019 American Hockey League All-Star game, which comes at a perfect time for Springfield, within 6 months of the casino’s grand opening.

Sports and entertainment has always meshed well with casinos, and Springfield looks to be no different.  Both parties here seem to be in a key position to benefit from each other, helping to enhance the city’s entertainment offering.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Just like the Red Sox "painted the town red" in 2003, the Thunderbirds do the same in 2018

By Zachary Baru

If there is one thing you can say about what the Springfield Thunderbirds have done since they were established in the summer of 2016, it's a sense of presence seen throughout the city. 

You can see it everywhere.  Their logo is everywhere.  Advertisements and banners throughout the city proudly show that this is Thunderbirds country, a strategy that teams have used for decades, and now brilliantly being used in our own backyard.

In 2003, the then-new Boston Red Sox ownership implemented a strategic marketing campaign to "paint the town red".  And paint the town red they did.  Within a matter of months, a much more streamlined and modern campaign of "Red Sox red" merchandise was available and being worn by many fans throughout the region.  Something somewhat similar is brewing here in Springfield.   

When the Thunderbirds came into town, there was a big need.  And that was support.  There was never a question of whether Western Massachusetts liked hockey, but there was a question of whether the region could support it. 

From the Boston Red Sox 2003 marketing campaign.
Fast forward to 2018, and the Thunderbirds' logo or banner can be seen everywhere.  Drive by Forrest Park, by MGM Springfield, or simply look at the car in front of you, it just might have a Thunderbirds bumper sticker, one of many that were distributed to fans since 2016. 

It is this excellent combination of traditional and grass-roots marketing that makes the Thunderbirds successful, and looks to lead to a bright future for the franchise.

The team has had commercials, both on television and radio, and even used billboards, but the marketing that can be seen everyday are the many logos that residents throughout the city see on a daily basis.  And regardless of whether you're a hockey fan or not, regardless of whether you are planning on seeing a game or not, you still are reminded of the Thunderbirds - a very important piece to the puzzle for any business.

It is this kind of marketing, in addition to an increased social media presence from three years ago, that will help carry the Thunderbirds into the future.  Just like the Red Sox "painted the town red" in 2003, the Thunderbirds are making their presence felt throughout the City of Springfield.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.  Zach also writes for SportsBusinessBoston.com.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament: Fan experience high at weekend-long event

By Zachary Baru

UNCASVILLE - For most basketball tournaments, it is simple: you enter the arena, watch the game, hope you get on the video board, or take part in a contest.  But that is it.  It is completely confined to the venue itself - all about basketball, and usually like any other tournament.

From being at the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament these last two days, the division 1 basketball is just part of the experience.  The location, as any event, is a major factor in the enjoyment for the common fan.

This is why the Mohegan Sun Arena is a fitting choice for the tournament, and why Mohegan Sun provides more than just an arena for the games.

Sitting in the arena watching the games has been very enjoyable.  There has been amazing plays, close games, overtime, a buzzer-beater, you name it.  But its before and after the games that has also been enjoyable, something many other basketball venues just cannot provide.

For the fans, players, players' families, coaches and all of the media, Mohegan Sun gives those involved plenty of hospitality, and entertainment as well.

The 1,200-room luxury hotel is just steps away from the arena, giving teams, media and fans a convenient and quality place to stay.  Additionally, the resort offers a spa, restaurants, bars, clubs, shopping and entertainment such as the free Wolf Den and a comedy club.

Notice how one thing was not included in all of those options - that of course, was gaming.  Illustrating just how much there is to do in the resort.

This weekend has been, well, there's really no other way to put it... really fun.  It is what makes the Tip-Off Tournament special, and enjoyable for all fans.  It's more than the basketball, it's more than the venue, it's a good combination of both, making the Tip-Off Tournament a must-see for any basketball fan.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and can be reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.  Zach also writes for Sports Business Boston.